By Preston Wilder
To quote Jason Statham in Homefront: “Whatever you’re thinking … re-think it”. On paper, Bad Neighbours sounds awful, even without the gratuitous adjective added for European audiences (the US title is simply Neighbors). This plot, with these stars, is a bad idea waiting to happen, especially with the unsteady hand of director Nicholas Stoller (responsible for chaotic non-comedies like Get Him to the Greek) at the helm.
The plot? A young married couple, with a baby that needs her sleep, discover that their new neighbours are a noisy college fraternity – a plot that offers carte blanche for raucous, raunchy hi-jinks aimed at the brain-dead segment of the college audience. The stars? Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, two of the most self-regarding actors in the business. Rogen never makes himself look bad, not even in Observe and Report where his character was mentally disturbed (the only semi-exception, This is the End, is also his best movie); no-one in his films ever calls him on his immaturity, or mocks his absurd fixation with getting stoned. Efron is better, but he’s one of those actors who can’t relax; he’s always ‘on’, always unconsciously preening. If these two were a piece of music, it’d be a cacophony of fart sounds set to a hammering dance beat.
And yet, and yet … Bad Neighbours is admittedly low on ideas, and far too keen on pop-culture in-jokes (“He looks like J.J. Abrams!” we’re told, prompting a knowing snigger from the two people in the audience who know what J.J. Abrams looks like) – yet the film is immeasurably better than expected, not just amusing but actually effective as character comedy.
Rogen and wife Rose Byrne are a team, not without their quirks (she’s Australian, for one thing) and not as uptight as expected. Marriage is the Great Satan in Hollywood comedies, viewed as a barren desert where sex-starved relationships go to die (see The Change-Up, though actually don’t) – but this married couple are in a poignant situation, still in love, still hot for each other, still wanting to go out and party, but weighed down by their new life (which they nonetheless welcome as a necessary part of growing up). In Seth Rogen-speak, they’re at the stage where the husband farts in bed but still has enough delicacy to say “Excuse me” and try to get rid of the smell; a transitional phase, you might say.
Their reaction to the frat house next door is priceless. They know it’ll be problematic – but how can they tell the kids to keep the noise down without looking terminally uncool? They rehearse it, trying to find a cool way to say “Keep it down”. They go on a neighbourly visit, taking some weed as a welcome gift (everyone smokes weed in this film’s universe). The frat-boys, led by Zac and right-hand man Dave Franco, are obviously un-fooled, calling our heroes “the old people” behind their back – but they too would like to be friends, so they invite them to a party. Rose shows off her baby monitor to a gaggle of college girls (“Awwww!” they respond in unison) while Seth scarfs down mushrooms like the arrested adolescent he is: “I’ve been doing mushrooms since before the internet existed!”.
Bad Neighbours surprises in a number of ways. The first surprise is the relative absence of gross-out humour; the shenanigans are more likely to involve a Robert De Niro party – Zac comes dressed as Travis Bickle, Franco is Meet the Fockers De Niro (“I’m watching you”) – than graphic carousing and vomiting. The second surprise is how nice everyone is. Seth and Rose have a great relationship, even as things get fraught (they have one fight, and make up almost instantly). Seth and Zac have a real friendship going – they’ve already bonded by ‘comparing Batmans’, Rogen doing a funny Michael Keaton imitation – even as war inevitably escalates between the neighbours. And the third surprise, as already mentioned, is that the film bothers to give Zac’s character a third dimension (he’s not too bright, and faces a bleak future once college is over), or bothers to depict marriage as something more than a sexless nightmare.
Don’t get me wrong; this is still a dumb comedy, and in fact it gets dumber as it goes on. Yet there’s something almost rueful in the film’s makeup, in the spectacle of 30-Something Man feeling his youth start to slip – not just in the obvious contrast with the teenagers next door, but in starting to feel out of touch. “Is that how people fight now?” asks bewildered Seth when two frat-boy combatants grab each other’s balls. Earlier there’s a reference to an app called Grinder (“Your phone beeps when there’s someone horny near you”) – part of a brave new world, like the gay couple down the road (hailed by our heroes as a sign that they’re living in a cool neighbourhood). How to be an adult in the mid-2010s: that’s a good joke, even if you’ve never heard of J.J. Abrams.
DIRECTED BY Nicholas Stoller
STARRING Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco
US 2014 96 mins